How to Be a Real Listener

by Quentin Schultze

Listening isn’t easy. Listening is messy. Complicated. Counterintuitive. We can’t become good listeners unless we first acknowledge how difficult it is for each of us personally. Novelist Ernest Hemingway puts it squarely: “Most people never listen.” Do you?

Listening is not just hearing. It’s not even just about sound. Listening is attending to reality—to the way things really are, especially in our relationships. Listening is not about how we think things are. It’s not about how we want things to be. It’s about humbly being open to reality.

Who in your life are truly skilled listeners? How would you know?

Here’s how: In some ways they probably know you almost as well as you know yourself. They perceptively attend and respond to what they perceive as your underlying feelings, not just what you say or text to them. They can tell what you’re feeling partly by your nonverbal posturing, especially your facial expressions. They understand you.

That’s not all. True listeners sympathize and empathize with you. They hold your hand through tough times. They rarely criticize you as a person even when they admonish you for specific misdeeds. They know what hurts and helps you—and aim to aid you. They’re not your friends just because it makes them feel good. They’re your friends because they accept you for the way you are and yet desire the best for you.

Such soul-listening friends are emotionally and spiritually present in your life, possessing an uncanny ability to know what’s on your mind and in your heart. One of the first signs of friendship is realizing that you and your friend are opening up to each other’s real feelings and not being distracted by all kinds of other issues and messages. That sense of being personally, honestly accepted by another person is emotionally powerful.

Sometimes couples who have lived together for a lifetime seem to be able to read each other’s minds. Their initial dating led them to a rich partnership. Often just how they look at one another is sufficient; they can read the nonverbal nuances—like subtle gestures or eye movements—that tell them what the other person is feeling or thinking. They’ve reaped the benefits of a lifetime of paying attention to each other.

Real listening is difficult partly because we want reality to conform to our wishes.

We’re less interested in humbly grasping reality than in avoiding any communication that challenges our assumptions. We even deceive ourselves about ourselves. Just ask a recovering alcoholic, someone hooked on Internet pornography, or a compulsive video game player. They try not to listen to themselves because it’s too painful. Meanwhile, they are busy selfishly trafficking in messages that make it hard to hear their own hearts.

Are you attending to reality in your relationships? Or just to your own assumptions and desires? An honest answer to these questions will give you a reading on how well you actually listen.
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